After experiencing one of the harshest winters in recent history, suburban baseball fans will be happy to hear these two words spoken next week at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark: play ball.
The Kane County Cougars, who begin their 2014 season Thursday in Iowa against the Quad Cities River Bandits, will have their home opener against the Fort Wayne TinCaps Tuesday night in Geneva.
As the team prepares for its 24th season of Major League-affiliated baseball, the Cougars await their second year as a Class A representative of the Chicago Cubs organization in the Midwest League.
A year ago, more than 400,000 fans attended Cougars home games, representing a 10 percent increase from the 2012 campaign.
After guiding Kane County to a 55-80 record last season, second-year Cougars manager Mark Johnson expects to field a team with improved pitching and team speed.
"It's a totally different team," said Johnson, who spent portions of 8 seasons as a catcher with the Chicago White Sox (1998-2002), Oakland (2003), Milwaukee (2004), and St. Louis (2008). "Offensively, it's totally different. We had some bangers last year so we played station to station and basically let them slug it out."
Led by Rock Shoulders (18) and Dan Vogelbach (17), the Cougars belted 97 home runs in 2013 -- their most since 2005 (119).
"This year is totally different," said Johnson. "We've got guys who are going to move the ball around. There's going to be a lot of runners in motion on the bases. It's going to be a lot more fun for me to coach. I loved watching those guys hit (last year), but sometimes that gets boring sitting back watching."
Johnson also expects to make some adjustments from the dugout.
"I was somewhat patient with them last year, but you can never be too patient with guys in their first full (professional) season and all the adversities they go through," he said. "This is a tough league for first-year guys. It's trying to understand what they're going through because it has been a long time since I was in my first full season.
"Last year was kind of my wake-up call remembering what it was like for me."
The 2014 roster includes four of the top 30 Cubs organizational prospects (according to Baseball America): right-handed pitchers Paul Blackburn (ranked 12th) and Tyler Skulina (19th); outfielder Jake Hannemann (17th); and infielder Daniel Lockhart (30th).
Blackburn, who was a first-round supplemental pick in 2012, started 12 games and went 2-3 with a 3.33 ERA at short-A Boise last season.
"He's pretty special," Johnson said of Thursday's expected Opening Day starter. "He can throw any pitch any time to any side of the plate. He's got the complete package. He's going to be fun to watch pitch."
In addition to Blackburn and Skulina, the starting rotation includes Daury Torrez, James Pugliese, and 19-year-old Taiwan prospect Jen-Ho Tseng.
"For a 19-year-old, he throws strikes with all three pitches and they're all above-average pitches," Johnson said of Tseng. "He's ready to pitch here."
Hannemann, a third-round pick in 2013 who played college baseball at BYU, will patrol center field.
"This kid can run," said Johnson. "I haven't seen a guy run like this in a while."
The outfield also includes a familiar name to most Cubs fans -- Shawon Dunston Jr., the son of the former Cubs shortstop who spent 18 seasons in the majors.
"My dad has been a great influence on me," said the 21-year-old Dunston Jr. "He taught me everything I know about baseball and life."
"Like his dad, Shawon is a super competitive guy," said Johnson. "He really grinds his at-bats."
Dunston Jr. is still becoming acclimated with the conditions after his first few days in the Midwest.
"It's cold," said Dunston, Jr. "I'm from California so we don't experience this weather, but I'm excited to be here and be a part of this affiliate.
"Hopefully we'll have a team that is exciting and hopefully the fans will be happy with our play this season."